Changing my mind - Livre d'Or

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Changing my mind
Wednesday, 28 September 2016 at 06:04 pm

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I aspire to be the kind of person who thinks for myself and most importantly changes my views when I learn new information. And that means I spend some amount of time worrying about whether I'm actually living up to that. There are lots of pressures pushing people, including me, towards opinions that are not based on evidence and convincing reasoning. The biggest one is probably conformity, I do have a strong drive to hold opinions that match the accepted ideas in my social circle. And that's a bit self-reinforcing, because I'm likely to be friends with people I broadly agree with and then when I hear arguments from people I already like I'm more likely to be swayed by them. Plus there's all the usual biases, I'm more skeptical of evidence for ideas I disagree with and relatively receptive to arguments that support views I already hold. And like many people I find changing my mind a bit scary because it implies repudiating the person I once was who held the now discarded view.

Part of the reason this came to mind lately was that some people were passing round a link to Scott Alexander's persuasion experiment. I find Scott Alexander very annoying for a lot of reasons, particularly his whining about how a feminist was mean to him one time and therefore feminism and all of social justice are an evil cult. But he does sometimes have some useful things to say and one thing I do admire about him is that he's quite committed to being precisely the sort of person who does update his ideas based on rationally examined evidence. And that's not my major goal in life but it is something I care about.

So anyway, I tried reading a lightly randomized essay aimed at convincing me to be scared of what the Rationality crowd call AI threat. And I was not at all persuaded, because although I did my best to be open-minded about the idea that I should be scared of the development of an all powerful, self-improving AI bent on the destruction of humanity, I find the concept so obviously ludicrous that no amount of writing in a pseudo-academic style with footnoted citations was going to shift my position. Plus I'm prejudiced against Alexander (as far as I know he didn't write the essay, but he promoted it) and fear of a powerful, destructive AI monster is a trope that I already associate with my negative feelings towards the Less Wrong / New Atheist / Rationality set. I think it's exactly an example of the kind of errors you make when you over-estimate your own intelligence and try to understand the world just by thinking really hard and without actually engaging with existing scholarship.

This did lead to a bit of self-doubt: am I just losing my ability to change my mind? Should I in fact be worrying about AI threat and I'm just blocking myself from doing so because I don't want to challenge my existing views and biases? (Actually I think the whole debate is directly analogous to Pascal's Wager: the fact that a clever person can invent an outcome that would basically be infinitely bad doesn't mean either that that outcome is likely, or that we should spend maximal amounts of energy trying to avoid that bad outcome.)

Then I did change a previously held belief, because people on my Tumblr dashboard were talking about this meta-analysis of studies about the effects of punishing children by spanking. Unfortunately the study is paywalled and I can't quickly find the Tumblr post where someone had put up a pirate version of the full paper. But basically Gershoff convinced me that there is a clear evidence base against spanking, given that she found lots of studies with small but reproducible negative long-term outcomes and essentially no studies with statistically meaningful benefits. But I don't really feel proud of myself for changing my view here, because for one thing basically all my friends are against any kind of corporal punishment so I'm just removing what was previously an outlier belief and replacing it with the group consensus. And for another it's a completely abstract question since I don't have or plan to have children so it makes no difference how I regard the arguments about childrearing practices. Besides, siderea and [personal profile] rmc28 had already half convinced me when I mentioned the issue before. So it was really quite easy for me to shut up the critical voice in my head pointing out that Gershoff has based her whole academic career around campaigning against corporal punishment and psychology has a replication crisis and a meta-analysis can be cherry-picked... You know what, self, that's as good a meta-analysis as plenty that you'd unquestioningly accept if they didn't require you to change your opinion, so there's no need to be overly picky about this one.

So those are the two extremes. I'm unpersuaded by an article espousing a view I think is not just wrong, but ridiculous, and more so because it's written in a style and associated with a group I disapprove of. I'm persuaded by a peer-reviewed meta-analysis to change a view I was only mildly committed to anyway to one which is more aligned with my social group. What I'd like from my readers, if you'd like to play along, is for you to persuade me of some new ideas. Please send me links to arguments you find persuasive on issues you expect me to disagree with. (I'm also quite interested to discover what you think I might find objectionable; I think I've been pretty open about my opinions here over the years, but of course everybody will have their own impressions and assumptions about me.)

I've turned off screening for anon comments, so if you think your views might be met with social opprobium please feel free to offer arguments without saying who you are.

I prefer comments at Dreamwidth. There are currently comment count unavailable comments there. You can use your LJ address as an OpenID, or just write your name.

Whereaboooots: Keele University, Staffordshire, England
Moooood: curiouscurious
Tuuuuune: Qntal: Noit e dia
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